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Robert Walser: Unmoored

Schizophrenia, Cognition, and the Text


Charles Vannette

Pathology. Psychosis. Schizophrenia.

These words often prove inseparable from the life and work of Robert Walser, who retreated to the sanatoria of Switzerland with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In so doing, he came to embody our romantic image of the outsider, perhaps more fully than any other German-language writer of the twentieth century.

This book takes Walser’s 1929 diagnosis as its point of departure and provides a cognitive study of the author’s writing. Clinical models of schizophrenic cognition from phenomenological psychology guide the analysis, and the book illustrates that underneath Walser’s literary production there is a cognitive process that is marked by the psychological concepts of hyperreflexivity and a loss of common sense. The book addresses four primary elements of Walser’s writing, including his flâneur texts, his singular prose, moments of stasis and epiphany in his writing, and the sense of psychological jeopardy that appears repeatedly in his work. This study proposes a new aetiology for Walser’s prose, one rooted in uncommon cognition. At the same time, it offers a bridge between two trends in Walser scholarship: one which has focused on his hospitalization and diagnosis of schizophrenia, and another that has stressed his unique literary style.

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Chapter 3 Particular Prose



Doch ich experimentierte auf sprachlichem Gebiet in der Hoffnung, in der Sprache sei irgendwelche unbekannte Lebendigkeit vorhanden, die es eine Freude sei zu wecken.1

– Robert Walser

Robert Walser wrote his microgram “Stil” in the early spring of 1926. This three-page essay on style is marked by thoughts and associations that seem to come and go freely on the page. Its rambling path proves a model example of Walser’s style and provides the foundation for a discussion of the origins of the author’s own unique syntax.

“Stil ist eine Art Betragen. Einer, der sich gut benimmt, hat Stil” (BG 4: 175).3 The essay’s opening sentences establish style as a manner of behavior (Betragen). Style is a certain posture and demeanor; appropriate conduct in concordance with some external guideline. To have style is to submit oneself to precepts and rules external to the self.

“Stil bedeutet Sinn für Kultur. Mit der Kultur beginnt die Geschichte,” declares the narrator (BG 4: 177).4 Not until his acquiescence of style, understood as an awareness and understanding of culture as a concept that unfolds over time, that is historic, does man cease to be prehistoric. “Der ungeschichtliche Mensch unterscheidet sich vom geschichtlichen dadurch, daß er sich noch keinerlei Stil leistete” (BG 4: 177).5 Yet this awareness of culture’s temporal quality first demands the ability to think in terms of chronology and the faculty to express concepts of past, present, inherited,...

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